Erasmus, a blogger for the Economist, recently saw a documentary by a Danish human rights lawyer named Jacob Mchangama about the need to get rid of all blasphemy laws. He agrees with Mchangama, of course, as do I. But he also pointed out that merely repealing such laws is not enough:
I agree with Mr Mchangama that blasphemy laws, implicitly threatening to use the state’s coercive might to punish irreverent speech, are both undesirable in themselves, and an ineffective way to ensure social harmony. But I also think he weakens his own case by overstating it. It’s true that punishing blasphemy won’t secure social peace, but rescinding all blasphemy laws, and robustly defending everyone’s right to insult, sneer and abuse, won’t necessarily get you social peace either.
As a matter of sociological fact, rather than value-judgement, social peace depends on more than the presence or absence of laws. If passionate hatreds between classes or between racial, ethnic or religious groups fester in a society, then blasphemy laws won’t keep the peace. But nor will the rescinding of all blasphemy laws. For social harmony to exist, other preconditions have to be in place. A minimum number of people have to subscribe to the principle that living together peacefully and constructively (in a household, a village, a clan or any other sort of group) is a desirable end; and that in pursuit of that end, it may sometimes be a good idea to show a minimum of good manners or self-restraint. If no trace of such feeling exists, then no legal regime or non-regime on earth can maintain harmony, in any micro-community or mega-community.
In a paradoxical way, Mr Mchangama and his bitterest opponents (the advocates of blasphemy laws) have something in common. Both think that legal systems are all-important in determining social outcomes. Yes, law is important, but so are culture, internalised moral values (whether individual or collective) and many other intangibles.
Very true. In many places that have harsh blasphemy laws, it may actually be safer to be arrested by the government than left at home. In Indonesia and Pakistan, for instance, there have been recent cases where someone accused of blasphemy has been savagely attacked by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists before the government could arrest them. And even in cases where people have been exonerated and found to have been set up, they will likely never be safe again in their own countries.
Even without such laws, religious extremism will remain an enormous threat to all who stand up against it.